Tuesday, 8 March 2016

No task force for these job losses

DOUG COLLIE reflects on well paid jobs being axed in the Borders

Recent job losses at Borders-based companies have been greeted with expressions of dismay from local politicians, with the obligatory task force deployed by Government in a bid to soften the blow for communities hit by the failure of businesses such as Hawick Knitwear Ltd.

There is no doubt that each manufacturing job lost is a hammer blow for the family concerned, at the same time eroding still further the spending power within the local economy and triggering the distinct possibility of the 'victim[s]' heading for pastures new in search of gainful employment.

The entire Borders economy is fragile enough without the continual decline in job opportunities, and the apparent inability or unwillingness of those in power to source and deliver major investment so that hundreds of skilled, well-paid posts can be attracted into the region. When was the last time a news conference was convened for a joyous announcement heralding the arrival of a major new player on the local industrial scene?

After all, it's not as though the textile barons still have the power to block alternative ways of earning a crust so that their Borders mills can maintain an exclusive grip on the pool of cheap, available labour. That kind of damaging influence surely dissolved several decades ago.

So much for the travails of the once dominant knitwear, spinning and weaving sectors.

There will be two more rounds of damaging job losses at the end of this month which may hardly merit a mention, and there certainly won't be a task force to pick over the debris. Yet in their own way the clutch of redundancies at Scottish Borders Council and at the Johnston Press newspapers in the Scottish Borders will have a long-lasting impact on earnings and opportunities for youngsters.

The local authority has signed off scores of early retirement packages over recent years at a cost running into many millions of pounds. According to senior officials still in situ the severance deals have the potential to save huge sums as previously indispensable posts are axed, never to be replaced.

This time six more leavers will go, costing the council £321,000 in severance pay and pension lump sums, but yielding a claimed annual saving of £274,000. One well placed officer will walk away with a deal worth £140,000.

A recent Freedom of Information request on this aspect of council procedure shows that already during the 2015/16 financial year five lucrative packages ranging in size from £67,000 to £103,600
have been tied up by volunteers seeking early departure.

The cull of council staff resulted in expenditure of £914,000 in 2013/14, just over £1 million in 2014/15 and £1,566,000 (so far) in the current financial year.

But while projected savings have been calculated there's no mention of the loss of opportunities for future generations of graduates and other job seekers who are forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

News is also filtering through this week of yet another round of staff cuts coming at Borders newspapers owned by the dysfunctional Johnston Press. The company has presided over a disaster of its own creation since acquiring the titles of family-owned weeklies during the 1990s, and things seem to go from bad to worse on a daily basis.

Some of the most dedicated, hard working and respected journalists and writers on the Borders press circuit are set to leave on March 31st following the latest invitation from their employers to take voluntary severance.

Despite their long-term commitment to the Fourth Estate - some have worked on their beloved papers since the 1970s - it is doubtful whether they will be able to command financial packages on a par with their local government counterparts.

How Johnston management plans to continue producing readable publications after their valuable gang of seniors departs the scene is a conundrum of their own making. But surely the fact that so many career journalists made it clear they wished to leave at precisely the same moment should have sent a message to the company hierarchy that they themselves are more than bit players in this business tragedy.

Now, those individuals still involved in the shrinking print press wonder whether all or any of the historic Borders newspaper titles in the Johnston stable can survive, let alone prosper.

The fewer local papers we have the less likely it is that local politicians, councillors and paid officials can be held to account or even be quizzed about their actions. And of course the chances for aspiring young journalists to get a foothold in the newspaper industry will diminish still further. However, those are not issues likely to be exercising the minds of the cut-crazy, bomb-proof executives in Johnston HQ.

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